Focus E15 Mothers, a group of young women who met each other at the Focus E15 shelter in Newham, have occupied a group of flats on the Carpenters Estate in East London to protest their situation and solve the problems which Newham Council won't.
I was talking to a friend of mine recently about our housing situations: high rents that had just been increased, constantly being priced out of areas and into increasingly smaller one-bed flats. Eventually I asked him if he'd ever consider moving out of London. “Never” he said. “Everyone I know is here; all my friends, my family. What would I do if I moved somewhere else?”
This conversation kept popping into my mind when I was talking to 20-year-old Jasmin, part of the Focus E15 Mothers group currently occupying empty flats on the Carpenters' Estate in Newham, East London. Following on from a £41,000 cut in funding, Jasmin and her then one-year-old daughter, as well as 28 other mums with their children, were given eviction notices from the Focus E15 shelter. Though it registered them as officially homeless, the council provided no other help, forcing the women to look for privately rented accommodation. As she explained to me:
It didn't take long to realise that no one would take us on at all because we were on benefits. No one would take DSS and the very few who would it didn't cover enough of the rent and the council wouldn't let us pay the difference. It was completely impossible.
They had to wait for offers from the council, which when they did come were in places as far afield as Hastings, Birmingham and Manchester. “My nan was born in Newham so I've always lived in Newham” she told me.
The women managed to win a partial victory, all getting rehoused in Newham but in private accommodation with their contracts only lasting them six to twelve months. It was with this situation in mind that they decided to occupy four flats on the Carpenters Estate last Sunday, living in them with their children and opening up a social centre for the local area.
Since we've opened it up as a social centre we've had so many residents in. We're getting to meet so many people and everyone's got a story. It's really lovely, you really feel a sense of community.
That's no mean feat on the Carpenters Estate, which has around 600 empty flats on it. Jasmin told me that some residents haven't had any neighbours for eight years. Jasmin pointed out three tower blocks nearby and told me that each one has 134 flats in it; one of them has less than twenty people living in it while the other two have less than five.
The idea that you could just uproot a group of young women and their children and then separate them from their families because it's more convenient to rehouse them 200 miles away is already pretty laughable. But it becomes absolutely disgusting when you look at what councils are leaving empty on their own doorsteps. One of the flats being occupied (see photos below) was completely done up with an almost-new fitted kitchen:
All we've done is had a basic clean, put some furniture down and it's fine. So many people have asked “Have you put wallpaper up? Have you put in a carpet? Have you done the bathroom?” No, it was like this when we moved in!
This is all part of the wider issue of housing in London. According the London Poverty Profile, social rented housing is at its lowest level for forty years while overcrowding in both social and private rented sectors has risen by six percent in the last ten years. And as the Financial Times has just announced, London is now the world's most expensive city with costs rising 40% since 2008.
As Jasmin told me:
It's the regeneration of London. Since the Olympics came that's when things got worse in Newham but it's happening all over London. Council housing and social housing is a myth now, it's been replaced with 'affordable housing' which 80% of the market rate so is still ridiculously expensive. Social housing is being demolished and built into luxury flats that no one can afford; they're bought by investors not even living in them, they're still empty. And they're demolishing perfectly good properties like this one.
It was great talking to Jasmin and the others down at the E15 Open House Occupation, to see Londoners taking a stand. If nothing else, it made me feel that there was another option for working class Londoners apart from constantly searching for the next 'cheap' rent area (only for to get priced out again in a couple of years) or leaving the city they grew up to predatory landlords, property investors and arsehole real estate agents.
If you or your group wants to help
The E15 occupiers are really keen on getting people down so make sure you give the place a visit. Some projects that they mentioned needing donations for were:
- A food bank for the local area
- A free shop (so things like clothes, toys etc are much appreciated)
- More expensive things like computers, phones, printers etc. They're trying to set up a service where people can come to make the phone calls or emails necessary to sort out their council tax or rent situations.
- Anyone with legal expertise
It's an open space so anyone who has any kind of expertise, wants to teach people things for free, have a meeting, anything: it's open.